Mapping Shane Black’s Obsessions Through ‘The Nice Guys’

The Nice Guys is one of Shane Black’s pulpiest films. Which is an odd thing to say about a guy whose first two movies as a director were Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3, which were about a PI named Gay Perry and a crime-fighting billionaire with a robot house, respectively, and who rose to fame writing goofy action movies like Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight. But if Iron Man 3 was Shane Black mediated for the masses, The Nice Guys feels more his unadulterated id, with all his usual influences, from Raymond Chandler to the Three Stooges, presented in such undiluted quantities that you can taste them all individually (which, if Chopped judges are to be believed, is a good thing).

I’d been obsessively rewatching Shane Black movies since before I knew his name, so for me the feeling of giddy nostalgia patched some of the bigger holes in the story’s believability. By contrast, a local TV critic who favors elaborate summer hats left the film loudly explaining why she didn’t like it — she just couldn’t buy Ryan Gosling’s character. And he was sort of like a drunk Wile E. Coyote (with boyish good looks). Point being, The Nice Guys probably isn’t the movie I’d take a Shane Black virgin to. It doesn’t nibble your ear to distract from the deflowering, like Geena Davis quoting Harold Robbins in The Long Kiss Goodnight. It’s more like Samuel L. Jackson in the same scene. “I usually just sock ’em in the jaw and yell ‘Pop goes the weasel!’ ”

Of course, if you’re not a Shane Black virgin, identifying all of Shane Black’s various obsessions and writing tics and the way they bubble up and combine throughout The Nice Guys is half the fun. If The Nice Guys is a map of Shane Black’s subconscious, here are some of the main points of interest.

1. Classic film noir and the buddy-cop genre
It’s almost as hard to find a Shane Black movie (by which I’m defining anything he wrote or directed) where the protagonist isn’t an alcoholic private dick as it is to find one that’s not about buddy cops. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and The Last Boy Scout all have PIs as the main or co-main character. In Lethal Weapon, they’re cops, but all of the above feature a duo of protagonists — often interracial, intergender, or of different sexualities (Mel Gibson/Danny Glover, Val Kilmer/Robert Downey Jr., Samuel Jackson/Geena Davis, Bruce Willis/Damon Wayans) — taking on various villains as they try to solve a mystery. With the exception of The Long Kiss Goodnight, they’re all set in the Southern California underworld. Sometimes Black includes the old hard-boiled voiceover, though usually with an overtly comedic, vulgar twist. One of my favorites is Bruce Willis’ daily affirmation in The Last Boy Scout. Nobody likes you. Everybody hates you. You’re gonna lose. Smile, you f*ck.

How does the Nice Guys rate? Baby Goose and Russell Crowe may not be as mismatched as some of Black’s past pairs, but they probably have the highest cumulative acting ability of any. Gosling’s Holland March (fantastic name) might not be Black’s strongest character, as his intelligence seems to waffle between above average and developmentally disabled from scene to scene, but he has a nice, wiry, Chester Cheetah vibe and such a rapport with Russell Crowe that you forgive it.

Shane Black in particular and detective fiction in general love self-hating alcoholic meatheads with hearts of gold. Russell Crowe’s Jackson Healy might not be quite as funny as, say, Bruce Willis, but he’s one of Black’s most human characters, endearing in a way that goes beyond one-liner delivery system (an interesting twist in what’s otherwise Black’s silliest movie since Monster Squad). A tough guy for hire, the violent ass-kicker/big softy dichotomy that exists in almost all of Black’s characters is not only better developed in Healy, but manifested outwardly in Crowe’s physique. With his broad shoulders, stocky Popeye arms, and generous gut, he looks like Rugby Dad PI, the kind of guy who carries a pistol in one pocket and a sausage roll in the other. But Crowe brings dignity and an odd grace to this sloppy, dough-bellied extortionist, and it’s mesmerizing to watch.

2. Dad jokes/Borscht Belt one-liners
I saw Weiner, the Anthony Weiner documentary this week, and there’s one scene where Weiner, in the midst of his latest tense press crisis, breaks the tension by reeling off Rodney Dangerfield one-liners from memory, one after the other. They weren’t the funniest bits you’d ever hear, but there’s something about those kinds of dad jokes that makes them stay in your brain forever. Aside from the “pop goes the weasel” line I quoted in the intro (and I haven’t seen The Long Kiss Goodnight in probably 15 years), there are inevitably Shane Black lines you rarely think about but nonetheless never forget — like “Wolfman’s got nards” or Bruce Willis, when, after some neighborhood kids drop a dead squirrel in his lap while he’s trying to sleep off a hangover in his car, picks up the phone. “What happened?” asks his boss.

“I think I f*cked a squirrel to death and don’t remember.”

Black’s best lines exist in that space between belly laugh and groan, the kind of things you’d hear your uncle use on his dart buddies at the Elks Lodge. Maybe they’re memorable and endearing for the same reason, designed more to be shared and reused than to knock your socks off in the comedy department. The Nice Guys is no slouch here either, giving us both “Love means buying a house for someone you hate” and, when discussing a nearsighted old woman, the Ryan Gosling line: “She’s so nearsighted you could paint a mustache on a Volkswagen and she’d say ‘Boy that Omar Sharif sure runs fast.’ ”